Sullivan: The Mikado

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 9 December 2012 5 stars

Mikado The latest revival of Jonathan Miller's production of The Mikado for the English National Opera feels as fresh now as on its first outing over twenty-six years ago. This is a timeless production which could continue to delight audiences for years or, indeed, for decades to come. But what kind of audiences will it attract?

For me the biggest surprise of the evening came from the auditorium, not from the excellent production. At the first night, regulars of first night performances were conspicuous by their absence. Whenever I go to an opera or a concert - whether on a first night or on any other performance of a production - I see at least a dozen or so people whom I know. But this time I drew a blank in the audience. In addition, some of the audience's behaviour - in front of me, next to me, behind me - was surprising. Talking all way through, drinking and eating (including large bags of popcorns) during the performance in the auditorium was a new dimension in the opera house. I hasten to add, that this kind of behaviour by some members of the audience was not encouraged by ENO. On the contrary, their staff did their best to minimise such unusual behaviour but they seemed to be running a losing battle.

Might it be that regular opera audiences look down on Gilbert & Sullivan? Or that Gilbert & Sullivan fans don't venture to the opera house? The full auditorium gave enthusiastic cheers at the curtain calls. Much to my surprise, the elderly couple in front of me (drinking all way through!) even led a standing ovation. Nevertheless, a nagging doubt remains that the full value of the piece and its exemplary performance might have submerged into an evening of entertainment. Should we worry or should we celebrate?

Gilbert and Sullivan called The Mikado (or The Town of Titipu) an 'entirely new and original Japanese opera'. However, in spite of some Japanese elements - such as some names in the plot and the Miyasama chorus - the work is decidedly English in its satire of English politics and institutions. On the other hand, I see no reason why we could not accept Gilbert and Sullivan's term of opera for The Mikado, even though scholars classify it as an operetta. Talking about his scores for his 'comic operas', Sullivan stated that he adhered to the principles of art which he had learned in the production of more solid works. Indeed, arguably many of the Mikado songs stand on equal artistic level with acknowledged great operatic songs. Thus Peter Joslin is fully justified when in his programme notes he refers to The Mikado as an English comic opera. At any event, The Mikado is now performed by outstanding opera singers in the English National Opera and it is conducted with sensitivity, charm and humour by David Parry.

Much has been written about this production over the past twenty-six years. The cream-colour design for the 1930s hotel setting by the late Stefanos Lazaridis continues to delight, as do Sue Blane's costumes. Anthony van Laast's choreography, now revived by Stephen Speed, is as musical as witty. Revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall maintains the original spark, possibly with assistance from Jonathan Miller who took a curtain call at the first night.

Richard Angas is evidently comfortable in his oversized costume in the role of the Mikado which by now appears to be second nature to him. It is not an easy role but Angas manages to be funny as well as moving. Richard Suart is a superb Ko-Ko. Twenty-six years ago the role was created by Eric Idle but Suart has been playing it for the past twenty-five years. He continues with some of Idle's idiosyncrasies but the body language is pure Ko-Ko (rather than Idle or Suart). Suart's list of people who will not be missed (in 'As Some Day It May Happen') is hilarious; it includes George Entwistle, Nadine Dorries, bankers, Starbucks, prime ministers, etc. Singing the song with slight amplification worked brilliantly. Ko-ko's Willow Song was funny but also deeply moving while in expressing Ko-Ko's contrasting emotions on conclusion (in 'The flowers that bloom in the spring') Suart demonstrated a mastery of vocal technique.

Robert Murray (Nanki-Poo) is a rock-solid lyrical tenor but with good sense of humour and even with some acrobatic skills. His love duet with soprano Mary Bevan (Yum-Yum) that is 'Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted' was powerful. Donald Maxwell brings decades of top class operatic experience but also a fully convincing characterisation to the role of Pooh-Bah. Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard (Katisha) sings and acts to perfection but she is in no way inferior as the role may demand. Jonathan Miller copies the Groucho Marx - Margaret Dumont relationship from the Marx Brothers but Yvonne Howard looks stunning on stage. So when she mentions her (that is Katisha's) ugly face, one needs to dismiss what one sees. Mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd (Pitti-Sing) looks good, acts well and uses her secure, creamy voice with musicality and confidence.

This is an operatic cast to die for. Not to be missed for opera lovers.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Alastair Muir